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Reaching for the Stars with Astronaut Michael Massimino

Reaching for the Stars with Astronaut Michael Massimino

Mike Massimino fixing the Hubble telescope

Former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino knows a thing or two about not giving up. He was a working class boy from Long Island,  New York, who suffered from a fear of heights and had difficulty with his eyesight. In fact, it was his impaired vision that led to him being rejected from NASA’s astronaut program for an unlucky third time. But not one to know when to quit, Massimino actually trained his eyes to improve, and on his fourth attempt he became a fully fledged NASA astronaut.

His distinguished career saw him blast into space in 2002 as part of the Space Shuttle program, then in 2009 he reached the stars again on a crucial final mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. It was a mission that saw him undertake the most complicated spacewalk ever attempted. Which he completed after some serious heart in the mouth action. His amazing endeavours even inspired George Clooney’s role in the Academy Award-winning film, Gravity.

We had the pleasure of chatting with Mike ahead of the Discovery Channel special, Space Launch: America Returns to Space, about the recent SpaceX launch event, to speak about his personal journey to the stars, what it was like to play such a huge part in fixing the Hubble Telescope and the future of exploration with SpaceX.

The MALESTROM: It’s every kids dream to explore space – tell us about your journey to become an astronaut, it wasn’t the easiest one...

Mike Massimino: No, it took quite a while for me to be selected. I got in on the 4th try. On the third try I was medically disqualified, and I had to figure out a way to teach my eyes to see better. It was these old rules they had, nowadays eyesight isn’t an issue, but it was when then, that was around 25 years ago. It was tough, there were a lot of obstacles and I got rejected over and over again, then finally on the fourth try it worked out. You’ve just got to stick with things sometimes and not give up.

TM: You’re essentially the walking embodiment of someone who never gave up. Is that an important message to you? 

MM: I talk about it a lot, I think it is important.

Mike Massimino
Mike Massimino

TM: Looking at your missions in space, obviously there’s simulation and training, but what is that feeling actually like to be blasted into space inside a rocket? It must be incredible?

MM: It sure is incredible. I describe it like some sort of beast or monster has grabbed you and is taking you away from home. That’s what it felt like. You go from zero to seventy thousand five hundred miles an hour in eight and a half minutes. An amazing amount of power to get you there. I was shocked when I did it just how powerful it was.

TM: Your missions were specifically to fix the Hubble Telescope – what does it mean to you to have had such a big part in space history by fixing something so vital to our understanding of the universe?

MM: It meant a lot to me. When you’re an astronaut you’re part of a phase of space programmes. The first guys were the first ones in space. Another phase was to go to the moon and so on. I was part of the shuttle era, space station and of course the Hubble. I was so thrilled to be a part of the Hubble missions that the whole combined team from the different space centres from around our country and scientists from around the world.

It was really a special group of people to work with and be a part of. I was very grateful for having that opportunity. And especially to be there at the end of the programme was very meaningful, where we were putting the finishing touches on the telescope.

Repairing the Hubble Telescope
Repairing the Hubble Telescope

TM: You set the record for the most hours walking in space during your missions – tell us about that one particular spacewalk where things didn’t go to plan…

MM: In some ways it was my most troubling moments and in other ways it was my happiest moments combined in that one day, in that one spacewalk. We had trained how to do that spacewalk for years, we didn’t know if we’d be able to do it, because we were taking apart an instrument in space that had never been taken apart.

So, we had to overcome a lot of the things that the engineers put in there so that nothing would never come apart in space. It required over a hundred new tools to be developed, like a new power tool. Plus it was the most complicated spacewalk ever attempted, and I had the chance to be one of the guys outside to do it in the lead role.

Mike training for his spacewalk
Mike training for his spacewalk

It was a very complicated spacewalk and I made an error on one of the simplest things to do, which was removing a handrail with big bolts on it. I’d stripped one of those bolts, so we had to come up with a solution. One of the things I learned then was no matter how bad things look, there’s always hope, you got to hang in there and give your team the chance to recover from it. I suspect no matter how bad things are they can always get worse, you don’t want to create more problems.

Also, you’ve got to leave some of your mistakes in the past, so when I made that mistake I knew I couldn’t dwell on it otherwise I’d be in trouble. So, as hard as it was, I just tried to remain focussed on the task in hand and we had to try and figure out a solution. Luckily we did and it worked.

Fixing the Hubble Telescope
Fixing the Hubble Telescope

TM: How do you manage not to panic in those extreme situations? Is it something in your personality, it is the training? 

MM: I think a lot of it is your training, you learn through that. Maybe some of it is in me. Now I’m no longer around astronauts all the time, I notice that a lot of people panic (laughs). Like what the heck is going on everyone, our lives aren’t in danger why are we worried about this? I think you realise panic is not going to help you. I remember going for scuba diving lessons and they said the number one killer of divers is panic. You hear that and you think panic is the enemy. Being scared is not going to help you.

Being nervous is ok, as it shows what you’re doing is meaningful to you. If you’re not nervous about anything I think you just don’t care and that’s not good. I think that was our culture, we had things happen to us sometimes when we did our training. And in space sometimes you’d think, boy this doesn’t look to good, but you just learn that it is what is is and you just try and work through it as a team. I remember consciously thinking to myself during that spacewalk, being upset is not going to help you. It’s ok to be upset, but any emotion I have is not going to help us, in fact it could be a real problem, even dangerous at times. You can’t let that happen.

I wouldn’t have known I had that in me unless those things had happened. I live in New York city and work at a university, I see people panicking about everything all the time. I’m like what’s the problem? I do think it’s probably more from my training and being around people who can handle emergencies. It never helps to panic and you have to be honest and say when you mess up. I realised when I stripped that bolt and said, look what I just did everybody. You can’t just forget about it and hope no one will notice. You just learn to operate that way.

TM: Space is all about cooperation. You’re living in confined spaces, you have to work together – something other nations seemingly struggle with when on Earth. What’s your recipe for collaborating successfully with all these different people from all these different backgrounds and countries? 

MM: I think what it is, is when you have a common goal and you can agree on that overarching goal, all your differences where you might have a problem go away. And your differences actually help. For example the UK astronaut Tim Peake is a good friend of mine, a wonderful guy. With being from England, he brings a slightly different perspective than I would being an American. A different perspective would also come from a Russian, or an astronaut from Japan, as there going to fly on the next SpaceX launch.

You have a combination of people from different cultures, you have men and women. Those differences and that diversity is helpful because you have varying perspectives and different experiences and a different culture trying to solve a complex problem. If everyone thinks the same way, you’re never going to get anywhere. You can solve somethings, but you’re not going to be able to do things like build a space station.

So, I think those differences become a strength and they become a strength because you have the same goal. If you agree on the mission, all those other things that you have conflict with don’t matter. You don’t even consider them.

TM: Looking at life when you’re in space. What’s it like to sleep up there?

MM: I got more sleep on my second flight than I did on my first. We didn’t have as bad a sleep shift and I think we were more prepared to deal with things. We also had a slightly larger spaceship because on the first one we had an airlock that was internal, so it was hard to manoeuvre things around. But my second flight I got more sleep. Sleep is very important, you’re very busy during the day, you’re scheduled for eight hours, so you need to get everything done to go to bed on time.

Sleeping in space you get into a bed roll that we would attach to a different part of the ship on the ceiling. It was kind of like a slumber party where we usually had five crew mates on the mid-deck and then two or three on the flight deck. On the space station that won’t work because you’re there for six months, so everyone has their own crew quarters, a bit like a closet. So, you have that privacy on the space station that you don’t have on a space shuttle.

It’s really a very comfortable way to go to sleep. You’re inside of a bed roll sleeping bag and it’s attached to the wall, or a structure so you’re not falling all over the pace or knocking into each other and waking people up. You’re floating inside of this bag and it’s very, very comfortable. A wonderful way to sleep and relax.

Mike on the Shuttle Atlantis Flight Deck
Mike on the Shuttle Atlantis Flight Deck

TM: That sounds amazing. In terms of eating, do you get hungry in the same way you would on Earth?

MM: I did. There’s only one other astronaut I know of that gained weight in space, and I did it twice! So, I like the food. Especially towards the end of the mission, I was feeling really good and the spacewalks were over and it was time to eat macaroni and cheese, that’s what I thought and it was time to eat extra brownies.

I put on a pound or so on each one of my flights. I was in the best shape of my life going into the flights so I could put a little on. I like the food, a lot of people complain about it, but it’s great.

TM: At the end of that now historic spacewalk you got the chance at the end to stop and just stare out into space and down on Earth. Describe for us the amazing sights you saw…

MM: Every glance you have of our planet is special. It’s beautiful night and day. In the daytime you can see the land formations, the colours of the oceans and the seas, the mountains and the deserts. You get a sunrise or sunset every twenty five minutes, so you experience a sixteen beautiful sunrises and sixteen sunsets from space in a twenty four hour period. Nighttime was just magical. It’s mainly dark, because you’re over the ocean, but sometimes you can see a series of fishing vessels off the coast of Japan, or with big cities you can see the lights.

You can see over Australia where people are living along the coast in the bigger cities and the stars are so perfect. They don’t twinkle, they’re just perfect points of light. You can see the gas clouds, you can see things you can’t see. The Southern Cross became my favourite constellation. I was in Patagonia over the Christmas holidays this year and I got to see the Southern Cross. I realised there it is again. I’d never seen it from Earth before. I hadn’t seen that thing since I was up there in space. I mean I’ve never been to Australia before but I feel intimately familiar with it with flying over it. It’s a great way to see the world.

You realise the beauty and that we all share the same planet. It’s a very special experience, we’re living in a paradise.

The Southern Cross constellation
The Southern Cross constellation

TM: Turning to SpaceX, you recently covered the historic launch. What do you make of the strides forward made by these new commercial space ventures, especially SpaceX? 

MM: I haven’t figured out a way to express how I feel about it clearly, because at first I was a doubter that they could do this. When they came and talked to our astronaut office twelve years ago, I thought this can’t be done, it’s too hard, only a couple of governments have been able to send people to space, the big ones. And we get a lot of help from the Europeans and from other countries like the UK as well as Japan and Canada. These are big governments, with big budgets, which is why I thought it can’t be done.

Pre-launch of the SpaceX rocket at NASA's Kennedy Space Center
Pre-launch of the SpaceX mission at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center

But little by little I started seeing their successes with them flying cargo to the International Space Station, and I became a believer when I saw them returning the booster to land on a target pad in the middle of the ocean. It’s unbelievable. I’m so totally amazed by what they are able to do.

I was amazed at what NASA could do as a little boy watching men land on the moon and the space shuttle is I think the coolest spaceship ever, but I’m equally amazed at what SpaceX has done. I think people are going to be amazed at what Boeing have done, who are hopefully launching this year as well and Blue Origin. Richard Branson is doing some wonderful things with his company Virgin Galactic. I think it’s a great thing.

We have the greatest entrepreneurs of our time involved in space travel, I don’t have any doubts that we can do anything now we have these great thinkers motivating people towards these goals and we still have our governments involved as well to support wherever they can. I think it’s going to be a very exciting future.

SpaceX astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley
SpaceX astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley onboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft

TM: What do you think that future looks like? Short term is it getting astronauts back on the moon then eventually manned crafts heading to Mars? 

MM: I think the Moon and then Mars and eventually even further, but we’re going to need some big breakthroughs and I think it’s going to have to come from governments working with these private companies. I think we’re going to see commercialisation on the Space Station and in low Earth orbit. I never thought I’d see that either, but I think that may actually happen.

It’s going to be expensive, but now there’s access available to people who want to make movies, people who want to make product and those that want to go up as tourists, I think it’s going to open up that possibility of low Earth orbit. I think we have a very exciting future ahead of us. It’s going to be tourism, commercialisation and exploration. Maybe it’s going to go back to the Moon, then on to Mars and onward.

TM: How did space travel changed you? What do you learn from going up there?

MM: I think the thing that stands out more than anything was the opportunity to spacewalk at the altitude of Hubble, where we were a hundred miles higher than the Space Station and you can see the curve of the planet. Very few people have gotten that view, I’m lucky enough to have done four of those spacewalks. To see the Earth from that altitude, my impressions, that changed me, are that we are all living in a paradise, we are so lucky to be here on this planet. It is an absolute paradise, it’s like living in heaven. That’s where I think we really are.

I think it’s important to remember with all the chaos and violence going on right now and of course the pandemic that we’ve been dealing with, we all live in the same home. We all may be from different towns, or cities, or countries and have different governments that represent us, but truthfully we are all in this together because we all share the same planet.

SPACE LAUNCH: AMERICA RETURNS TO SPACE premieres 8pm, Saturday 6th June on Discovery Channel


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